1. Leave the politics at the kitchen door…
Pat Chapman’s Taste of the Raj (London 1998) aspires to neither scholarly nor definitive status. Instead, it amounts to an elegy for the food his grandmother served as a memsahib caught up in the imperial project following the First World War. In this it is not unlike any number of memoirs that recount the stories of a vanished culture by the British formerly in India, or their descendants.
Unlike many memoirists, Chapman chooses not to interweave anecdote with recipe. He does include a brief (some 32 pages) history of the Raj and also provides succinct introductions to each of his chapters. None of this pretends to any depth of analysis and Chapman’s brief does not extend to geopolitical or social issues. “At what point Britain’s ambitions changed from the creation of profits to the realization that power was just around the corner is irrelevant” to him. (Chapman 8)
Taken on these terms, Taste of the Raj is a lot of fun.
Chapman is a lively writer who avoids both the roseate lens and condemnatory cataract. He does admit he has no personal basis to critique the complexities of the Raj:
“In living memory, my mother, uncles and aunts spent a fairytale childhood in India. As kids, they had a wonderful life, blissfully unaware of the politics of empire, and the spine-chilling class system and snobbery which surrounded them. When my grandfather retired to England his brood were still very young. Their anecdotes and memories of India are unsullied by the cynicism of adulthood. The things which happened to them could have happened, and doubtless did, to any Raj family. Much of it was funny.” (Chapman ix)
2… but do preserve the past within.
Chapman’s primary purpose is the preservation of Anglo-Indian foodways. As he explains, “Taste of the Raj is a cookbook first and foremost,” and it describes straightforward recipes that will provide the moderately curious cook with appealing food.
At this point it is necessary, given the vagaries of postcolonial politics and political correctness, to address the term ‘Anglo-Indian.’ The Editor has addressed its various connotations elsewhere; for Chapman’s purpose, and ours in this essay, it means someone of British ancestry living in India, whether or not born on the subcontinent.
Chapman takes note of the many salient sources for Raj recipes--the ubiquitous Mrs. Beeton, hateful Flora Annie Steel, Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert writing as ‘Wyvern.’ In the wonderful words of David Burnett and Helen Saberi, Wyvern was “the Escoffier of the Raj.” Even Escoffier, however, did not write with the flair of Wyvern, who rivals Trollope as a culinary and anecdotal stylist.
Neither Kenney-Herbert nor any other identifiable author, however, perches atop Chapman’s pantheon of Anglo-Indian cookbook authors. That pedestal is reserved for the anonymous author of The Indian Cookery Book. Thacker & Spink of Calcutta first printed it in 1877 and, according to Chapman, “it had the longest publishing history of all the specialist Raj cookery books.” That history spanned more than six decades; a sixth edition appeared in 1944. (Chapman 27)
Right or wrong, Chapman considers it the “one book which proves that Indian cookery was alive and well and enjoyed by certain Raj families.” It demonstrates, he claims, that most denizens of the Raj still “really did like curry no matter how desperately the snobs tried to belittle its supporters” at a time when bad British food was gaining favor in India amidst the social stratification, not to say stultification that increased as the nineteenth century rolled on. (Chapman 27)
For Chapman, the primary importance of the Indian Cookery Book is personal. It was among his grandmother’s “most treasured possessions” and her kitchenworn copy has become one of his. (Chapman 27) It is nothing if not utilitarian, and if Wyvern writes like Trollope then our anonymous author may just as well have specialized in manuals of instruction.
Wyvern is a writer sympathetic to India, its people and their culture, but streetsmart enough to understand their guiles without displaying a shred of bigotry. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Wyvern did not waste print to pillory his cook. He refers to intelligent Indian khansamars and insists in no uncertain terms that a “mild Hindu,” no less than a French or English cook, could become adept at the not inconsiderable art of assembling his classic Anglo-Indian curries.
3. The road from vindaloo.
Not that our anonymous author is bigoted; he simply is a fact man, or perhaps woman, suitable for casting in a revival of ‘Dragnet.’ Some of the facts he recounts should be of interest. For example, even though curry had fallen from favor in certain Anglo-Indian social circles, and Hannah Glasse had published a recipe for English curry as early as 1747, the dish and its accompaniments remained sufficiently exotic in 1877 for Anon. to include recipes for prepared curries, with sufficient shelf life to survive the long voyage back to Britain as a gift:
“If the following instructions be carried out carefully, the vindaloo will keep good for months, and, if required, may be sent as an acceptable present to friends at home.
In order to keep it good sufficiently long to be sent home round the Cape, select the fattest parts of pork…. ” (Anon. 37)
Furthermore, and to be fair, the instruction that Anon. offers is sound, including the recipes for vindaloo (a curry that “can only be made properly of beef, pork or duck” and never includes potato). (Anon. 36) Chapman himself has rendered many of those recipes more accessible to the contemporary cook by breaking the original narratives into steps.
Not that nothing is amiss in Chapman’s take on the recipes from The Indian Cookery Book. His version of those vindaloos, for example, has been rendered a bit bland by the substitution of red wine for most of the original vinegar, and the inclusion of garam masala with a milder mix of other spice. Anon.’s salutary note that “[t]he best vindaloo is that prepared with mustard oil” has disappeared along with the mustard oil itself in Taste of the Raj. (Anon. 36) In other words, ‘authenticity,’ while a perpetually shifting target, has taken a hit. Chapman’s vindaloo, while good, will not taste much like the ones that emerged out of Indian Cookery.
That is due at least in part to his welcome if anachronistic desire to rectify the rampant misperception of vindaloo in Britain, and so Chapman’s version will not taste much like what passes for the dish in most Indian restaurants. A typical British vindaloo will include potato but taste of nothing but heat; it has become a sick symbol of the hyperagressive male.
As Chapman explains:
“It’s the archetypal benchmark for today’s curry restaurant’s hot curry, and the butt of many a journalist’s cheap joke. How many times have you tired of hearing about lager louts and their vindaloo habits?” (Chapman 52)
Vinegar, not chili, represents the traditional signature ingredient--a major reason why it can be prepared to keep so well--and Anon.’s vindaloos look like nothing so much as highly seasoned sauerbraten.
4. What about the word to the left of the hyphen?
Chapman ignores the recipes from The Indian Cookery Book with a discernable origin in the British Isles. He is not alone in this kind of neglect. Academic as well as journalistic discussions of Wyvern, for example, cover his chapter on curry but it is a small section of the book; most of it provides instruction for cooking British and French recipes.
The Indian Cookery Book has a higher proportion of recipes that originated on the Subcontinent, but Anon.’s ‘British’ recipes hold an interest of their own. The Indian, or perhaps Anglo-Indian influence infiltrates many of them. An otherwise typical ‘bubble & squeak’ gets a big jolt of ginger, and so do kidney and mutton stews.
Pickled products as well as spice could liven dishes in a hot climate before the age of refrigeration and also provide a hint of home. The capers traditional for saucing boiled lamb therefore appear in unexpected places, in a brown sauce for boiled beef and as a piquant addition to the standard English parsley sauce. In common with other Anglo-Indian cookbooks, Indian Cookery makes more use of vinegar than British cookbooks of the age. Both styles employ a lot of citrus, but only an Anglo-Indian would add eight limes to the cure for corned beef.
Some of the British recipes in the Cookery book resist the influence of India; Anon.’s veal pie might have been lifted straight from Eliza Acton and the same might be said for any number of other recipes including haggis, kidney toasts and pigeon with petit pois.
The presence of these recipes in The Indian Cookery Book raises the obvious question whether, as Chapman insists, its continuous publication demonstrates the enduring appeal of curry. Perhaps the people who bought the book got it for the British recipes instead: We do not know.
As regards Taste of the Raj, however, in the end we should return to the beginning and take Chapman at his word, that his book ‘first and foremost’ is about its food.
bfia versions of recipes from Taste of the Raj, along with a vindaloo from 1877, appear in the practical.
-Taste of the Raj is unaccountably out of print, but cheap copies are available online from any number of sources.
-The evocatively named Dodo Press, which “specialises in the publication of rare and out-of-print books,” reissued the favorite cookbook of Chapman’s grandmother as The Indian Cookery Book in paperback during 2008. Recommended.
-The Dodos have a sense of humor; their edition includes the photograph of a bas relief elephant on the frontispiece over the caption “In this book, there is no recipe for preparing elephant!”
-They do not, however, have a sense of place. Where does Dodo publish its books?